Monday, May 25, 2015

A young veteran in Washington's whirl, 1866

John Charles Currier was shot in the face not once but twice during 1864, the second ball shattering his jawbone. Somehow he survived to live a long and eventful life.

Currier was a native of Auburn, N.H. He graduated from Pinkerton Academy, then set out for Iowa, but returned after the Civil War broke out. In 1862, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers as a private and was soon promoted to second lieutenant.

John Charles Currier
In early 1866, Currier wrote to his sister Mary from Washington, S.C., where he had been hired to work in the Treasury Department. His letter describes the burgeoning postwar federal bureaucracy and the thrilling social life of a gainfully employed 22-year-old veteran in Washington.

He went out on the town most nights in search of contacts with the leading politicians and military leaders of the day. This letter recounts a Feb. 6 reception in Andrew Johnson’s White House. The man charged with introducing him to Johnson turned out to be Benjamin Brown French, a longtime Washington functionary who, like Currier, hailed from Chester, N.H. French made several appearances in my book, Our War, most notably at Abraham Lincolns second inauguration.

The Hattie in the first paragraph was soon to become Currier’s wife. His descriptions of Washington life are exciting. He is star-stuck by the national leaders he meets and sees. Perhaps the most touching content of the letter is his expression of grateful, loving feeling for his sister.

February 7th, 1866

My dear Sister,

I don’t really believe I deserve such a castigating you gave me for I have endeavored to write you as often as any of the family, all of whom seem to expect a separate letter from me at least once a week. Before me is a letter just received from Nattie wherein I am belabored for not writing her more frequently. Now please take into consideration the fact that I am not the free and independent young man I was four months ago.

Seven hours daily of my time must go to Uncle Sam or else my desk will get such a pile of books on it that I have to work nights to keep it clean. Just now the 2nd Auditors Office is overwhelmed with business. Applications come in from every quarter of the country for settlement of accounts. More than a wagon load of letters has to be answered daily. The Government are anxious to have the claims of the soldiers settled and the answers forwarded. Eight hundred clerks drawing the quill in this Office alone. Two hundred more are scattered through the different branches of the houses, six hundred of whom are ladies. And yet that is not enough to keep the work up to date. Many work every night till into the small hours. This Treasury has come to be a “Big Thing.”

Do you know that one could not count our National debt in a lifetime if it was in twenty dollar bills? What a load then upon the shoulder of Secretary McCulloch. I think the Treasury is now the heart of the Country and as it throbs so throbs the Country. The War Department is fast dwindling down to a Peace basis and Stanton the “Comet” of our war is fast losing his “Occupation.” There could not have been found in our broad land another man equal to the Secretary of War for his position, his great mind immediately grasped the issues and put our vast armies in the field ready for service with a celerity truly wonderful.

Foreign nations look upon him with awe and wonder. And what man would have withstood so long and fearlessly the many attacks upon him from all parts of the country. At one time the press were all howling at him like wolves at a huge bear whom they are afraid to grapple with, but he worked on unflinchingly in his clear path and now this country see the wisdom of his course and honor him accordingly. However I did not sit down to write a paragraph. I began with a protest against your damnation of my delinquency (Whew! Those two words made my head ache.)

Benjamin Brown French
I know dear sister you have always been a kind, blessed sister to me and I appreciate the many kindnesses from you and your watchful caring for me during my youth, before we both our left our home. You were always the first to chide me when I did wrong and applaud when I was right. I have in my journal a maxim you gave me when I started for the west the first time, one I never have forgotten. You wrote it yourself. And dear Mary besides the counsels of my father and mother none ever had such weight with me and have affected my life like yours. You know you always governed me in my boyhood and I can truly say that much of the ambition which has guided me during the last four years was due to your training.

How do you think I love to write to anyone more than you? I have said this much, for the first page of your letter seemed to convey the opinion to me that you believe I did not think of sister Mary as often as the rest of the family. I am glad you are pleasantly situated keeping house. Must be more agreeable than boarding.

Washington is full of life and gayety. Foreigners, Southerners, and wealthy Northerners are here in great numbers. The parlors of the wealthy throng nightly with beauty and fortune. The notions of pleasure can be filled to fatuity with Opera, Receptions, Parties, and half-a-dozen other fashionable amusements. The city seems to be one grand whirl. I go out about every night, more for the sake of seeing our public men than for anything else. I have plenty of invitations. 

Last night attended the Presidents Reception. At half past eight the stream of silks and broadcloth commenced pouring into the garden solons of the White House and so continued till midnight. I was in at nine and a half. A more brilliant assemblage I never saw before. The “Blue Room,” “East Room” and halls were crowded with the ‘elite’ of the Capitol and of the nation. Among the Generals was Grant, Sherman, Meade, Meigs, and Logan, members of Congress were sandwiched between double slats. Wells of the Navy, Stanton, Nolan, and all the rest of the cabinet were there. The President and daughters remained in the “Blue Room.”

Andy looked well, has a determined eye, straight black hair and a very dark complexion. He gripped my hand warmly. B.B. French, who does all the introducing, after the crowds got through handshaking, took me by the arm and told the President the whole story of my getting shot twice in the face &c. Andy said –  “Well Cap’n I suppose there is not a parallel case in the whole country,” said “twas a great cause” &c. I was so obfuscated I couldn’t say much. And I now had to take it all day from my comrade for that five minute chat with the President. Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Stover, daughters of the President, receive very graciously. 

[Thanks to my friend David Morin, who transcribed this letter and clued me in to Currier's life. Together we've developed a lot of information about him to fuel coming posts about him.]

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